THIS WEEK in the War of 1812 (August 24-August 30, 1814) PART 2
Within a few hours after winning the Battle of Bladensburg on August 24, British forces are on the march to Washington. Vice Admiral George Cockburn, commander of the naval forces in the expedition, wants to wreak havoc and vengeance on the Americans by burning their capital city (Pop. 8,000). But the Army commander, Major General Robert Ross, a battle-tested veteran of the Napoleonic Wars is adamant, only public buildings will be burned and personal property will be respected.
That standing order is put to the test almost as soon as Ross and Cockburn enter Washington on horseback, accompanied by less than 200 soldiers, sailors and Marines. Most of the 4,000-plus troops in the raiding expedition are resting from their long, hot marches from Benedict, Maryland on the Western shore of the Chesapeake to Bladensburg and the outskirts of Washington over the past two days in the heat and humidity of a Maryland August.
Gunfire erupts from a three-story private home near Capitol Hill, killing two British soldiers, wounding several others and killing the horse Ross is riding. Luckily for Washington, the general is unhurt. Ross, who initially thought he didn’t have enough men to capture a national capital, now wants to keep most of them out of the city to avoid looting, and worse. Three Americans are captured in the house where the shots came from and they turn about to be some of Commodore Joshua Barney’s flotilla sailors who gave the British a rough time during the Bladensburg scrap. Impressed by the dogged defense Barney’s men put up — when the rest of the Americans ran or were ordered to withdraw — Ross and Cockburn do not order the men hanged, even though others in their party are calling for blood.
Most of Washington’s inhabitants fled in panic when word came down about the defeat at Bladensburg. And the British were confronted by a virtually empty city.
First stop in the chastisement of the U.S. government for declaring war on Britain while it was battling Napoleon is the U.S. Capitol. British troops pile tables, chairs and desks in the House of Representatives chamber and set it alight with torches and gunpowder. They repeat the process over in the Senate but the sheet metal roof defeats their effort to start the blaze with Congreve rockets. So the troops have to ignite the Senate chamber the old fashioned way. At the time, the U.S. Supreme Court and the Library of Congress were house in the Capitol, so they went up in smoke, too.
Ross, Cockburn and company head down to the president’s mansion (it wasn’t called the White House back then) which they find empty but with the dining room table set to accommodate a dinner party or 40 — including chilled wine. The British officers make themselves at home, tuck into the food and toast “Jemmy” Madison and his wife, Dolley Madison. After leaving the battlefield when the outcome seemed certain, Madison stopped off a the White House for a glass of wine, and to re-consider the wisdom of relying on state militias rather than a large, well-trained standing army. President James Madison cleared out about an hour before the British arrived. The First Lady left with the White House silver, china, a few knickknacks accompanied by family friends and some cabinet members an hour or so before the president arrived. Contrary to popular belief, Mrs. Madison did not take the famous Gilbert Stuart oil portrait of George Washington with her. She ordered White House staff to take it with them or destroy it to keep such a symbol out of British hands. Again, luckily the men were able to break the heavy frame and whisk the canvas to safety.
Except for some souvenirs, like Madison’s ceremonial sword, the British burned everything in the executive mansion: furniture, rugs, books, government papers, clothes and linens. Cockburn also took some time out to wreck a local newspaper, the National Intelligencer, a pro-Madison paper that excoriated Cockburn for raiding and torching several towns up and down the Chesapeake Bay the previous summer. Cockburn wanted to burn the place down but when informed the newspaper was only a tenant, not the building owner, Cockburn — respecting the Irish-born Ross’ no damaging private property edict — settled for dragging all the paper and printing equipment into the street and burning or breaking it.
Under orders, the few sailors and Marines left in the city, torch and blow up the Washington Navy Yard on the Eastern Branch of the Potomac River (Anacostia River today), including two nearly completed new ships, the frigate Essex and the sloop-of-war Argus. The glow from the fire can be seen for miles in either direction.
The next day, August 25, the British send troops to destroy the Greenleaf Point Arsenal on the Potomac close to where the Eastern Branch flows into it. During the demolition, a well in which full barrels of gunpowder had been dumped is accidentally touched off — blowing the well, the arsenal and many British soldiers to smithereens. A few more British troops are killed when a savage storm — they called it a hurricane at the time — lashes Washington with thunder, lightning, high winds that uproot trees and a torrential downpour that snuffs out some of the fires and knocks down structures on the British. Later, Washington residents say the storm was sent by Divine Providence to save the city.
That night, just a day after entering Washington, Ross — fearing the Americans might reorganize the scattered militia and regular troops to counter-attack — orders a withdrawal, first to Bladensburg to drop off the most seriously wounded, and then back to Benedict, where the British fleet was waiting. There is no risk of an American counter attack. Brigadier General William Winder, who performed so abysmally at Bladensburg, has withdrawn his troops to Montgomery Court House in Maryland and is trying to find enough food and shelter for them. On the morning of August 26, Winder gets word that the British are heading for Baltimore and by late morning is moving out with the militia and regular Army regiments that fought at Bladensburg along with new troops from Western Maryland.
The Washington Post has a wonderful retelling of what happened in Washington after Ross and Cockburn left and Madison and his cabinet returned.
But wait, there’s more …
On August 27, a British naval squadron commanded by Captain James Gordon is sailing up the Potomac River, approaching Fort Washington, a star-shaped structure completed in 1809 on a Maryland bluff overlooking the river, south of Washington. Gordon’s little fleet of seven ships was sent by Cockburn 10 days earlier as a diversion to draw U.S. forces away from Ross and his troops attacking from the East. The squadron was also supposed to offer an escape route for the British troops if the raid on Washington went awry, but squalls, unfamiliar currents and shoals, stalled Gordon’s ships for days.
Now Gordon faces what is considered the main U.S. defense installation guarding the nation’s capital. But the U.S. commander has only enough men to man five of the fort’s 27 cannon. He is also low on ammunition. He’s also hearing (untrue) rumors that the British force that burned Washington is marching to attack him from the land.
The American commander and his officers decide to spike the guns, withdraw and blow up the fort — without firing a shot.
Gordon’s squadron sails to Alexandria, Virginia, the port where George Washington brought his tobacco to ship to England before the Revolution. Lacking any defense or useable cannon, the city fathers vote on August 28 to surrender to Gordon to avoid destruction. On August 29, Gordon demands all of the ships in the city — including those that have been scuttled to avoid capture — be surrendered to the British as well as all the supplies in Alexandria’s warehouses. By September 1, all 21 ships under Gordon’s control are stuffed full of supplies and merchandise like tobacco and he’s ordered to rejoin the fleet in Chesapeake Bay.
The night before, August 30, a party of about 200 British sailors and Marines launch a raid on Maryland’s Eastern shore, across the Chesapeake near Chestertown, to chase off Americans on the Eastern Shore who might be planning to reinforce Baltimore. The British are commanded by Sir Peter Parker, who has been leading another Royal Navy squadron on a diversionary mission on the Upper Chesapeake. But the Maryland militia, led by Lieutenant Colonel Philip Reed, is waiting for Parker and his men. They open up with cannon and musket fire, killing 14 British — including Parker — and wounding another 27. The Americans withdraw when they run out of ammunition. They suffer only three wounded and none killed.
Sources for this post:
1812: The War that Forged a Nation by Walter R. Borneman, 2004
1812: The Navy’s War by George C. Daughan, 2011
Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence by A.J. Langguth, 2007
The Dawn’s Early Light by Walter Lord, 1972
Through the Perilous Flight: Six Weeks That Saved The Nation by Steve Vogel. 2013
Our Flag Was Still There: The Sea History Press Guide to the War of 1812 by William H. White, 2012
Entry filed under: Homeland Security, National Security and Defense, Naval Warfare, THIS WEEK in the War of 1812, Washington, Weaponry and Equipment. Tags: amphibious warfare, Brigadier General William Winder, British Army, Burning of Washington, Canada, Fort Washington, Major General Robert, Maryland, Naval War of 1812, Ross, Topics, Vice Admiral George Cockburn, War of 1812 Bicentennial, War of 1812 in Maryland.